LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska's race for U.S. Senate is turning negative as Democrat Dave Domina and two independent candidates try to erase Republican Ben Sasse's comfortable advantage by labeling the GOP candidate as a tea party extremist.
Sasse, a president at Midland University in Fremont until the year's end, enjoys backing from national tea party figures as well as Nebraska's Republican establishment and major farm groups. He also has raised more money than Domina, a trial attorney from Omaha, in a state that heavily favors Republicans. Independent candidates Jim Jenkins of Callaway and Todd Watson of Lincoln are also running.
They are vying to replace Republican departing Sen. Mike Johanns and national Republicans view Sasse as heavily favored to replace him.
That hasn't stopped opponents from trying to paint Sasse as too extreme for even a conservative state like Nebraska. Domina said that, unlike Sasse, he opposes efforts to privatize Social Security. He also called it a "fool's errand" to try to repeal the federal health care law, saying the law is here to stay. Sasse has promised to push for its repeal.
"I realized last October when the government was shut down ... that the Republican Party would nominate its most extreme candidate, and it did," Domina said.
Sasse dismisses the criticism, saying he would fight to preserve Social Security benefits for current recipients and those near retirement age. But he argued that the program needs reform, possibly by extending the age at which people who have years before retirement can collect their benefit.
"You still hear, again and again, these dishonest sound bites," Sasse said. "You're going to hear that I don't care about seniors, and that I'm trying to do something to take away the benefits of people who have already paid into the program. It's not true."
Though his Republican primary win was hailed nationally as a tea party victory, Sasse has shied away from the label. With degrees from Harvard and Yale, he worked for the U.S. departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. His endorsements include anti-establishment figures such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the Club for Growth — and well-known Republicans such as five-term Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and former Gov. Kay Orr.
His first general election television ad released Thursday casts him as a family man who would push parties aside. In speeches he strikes the tone of a policy wonk, telling audiences that he might have to "nerd it up" when talking about Social Security and the federal health care law.
"If we had five hours instead of five minutes, I'd spend a lot of time unpacking at a technical level why Obamacare isn't going to work," Sasse told an audience in Lincoln this week.
Jenkins took aim at Sasse for his primary endorsements from national tea party figures, including Palin and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He also criticized Sasse's support of the so-called Norquist Pledge to oppose all tax increases, created by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
Jenkins, a Democrat until two years ago, has cast himself as a nonpartisan bridge-builder who would try to reduce the two-party dominance in Congress.
"Everybody's entitled to their beliefs, but Ben is trying to hide the ball on the fact that he's a lot more conservative than most Nebraska Republicans," Jenkins said. "I don't believe, based on my experience, that we're a tea party state. This is the group that was willing to shut down the government and hold up the Farm Bill for a year and a half."
Watson, a self-described "conservative populist," argued that Sasse represents a Republican Party that hasn't followed through on its promises at the national level.
"People are more obsessed with winning as opposed to what's right," Watson said. "These parties are not about right. They're about power."